Monday, July 17, 2017

Cargo Cults: 17776 and Homestuck

Jon Bois' epic about the future of football, 17776 just finished. If you haven't read it, you should, or at least read the first page/chapter.

A number of commentators, both on tumblr and reddit have said it's very similar to Homestuck, the MSPA adventure, and there's definitely an overlap of fandom. Homestuck, remember, is a meta-textual experimental piece of outsider art about kids who find themselves going on fantastical quests in a computer game after the world has been destroyed.



They're not wrong, but they're not right either. And their comparisons are a great example of cargo cults.

The phrase "cargo cult" refers to island cultures that would make first contact with Western civilization, and would see all the material goods they brought, and so try to replicate this process of receiving cargo by building runways or statues of planes or whatever else looked like the Westerners.
So the term refers to worshiping the superficial aspects of something complex, and ignoring the true reasons it works.

The basic explanations for why Homestuck fans like 17776 is "they are chatlogs with different colored text and typing styles to represent different characters" and "JUICE is a lot like Dave" (sarcastic, mean, but so enthusiastic that he can't resist info dumping about things he cares about) and "it's a mix of video and bad, static html" and "it references pop culture."

Except this is a pretty bad explanation. Why? Well for one it's really easy. To make, that is. Like do you know how many Homestuck fan artists have made fanfic with "different colored text" and "someone who sounds like Dave?" It's not a hard thing to try. And yet "capturing the feeling of Homestuck, enough to enthrall fans" is much harder. Why is that? They're mistaking the tactile details for what is actually compelling. Cargo cults.

The first thing that really makes it work is the "rapid recontextualization." Already on chapter one, you have this slow dialogue happening between Nine and Ten over the course of years, slowly revealing stuff but mostly a) entertaining us with their dopishness and b) slowly doling out facts that explain the situation. It's agonizing. And then, on a dime, something unpredictable happens that accelerates the fuck out of the story, giving them instant communication and explaining who the satellites are, complete with dramatic screenshots of satellite related stuff. And after that point everything in the story is in this new context and new speed.

Hussie did that a lot too, with interminable dialogues between John and whoever, point and click hunts by John (or whoever), until a random thing happens and then bam, we know a whole lot more about the (much wider) world in one instant. This is frankly some kind of operant conditioning that addicts a non-negligible part of his audience. It's no surprise it would grab the same people.

Bois in particular does this with the video pieces. It's not just "it uses both static html and video", but the way it uses video. Which is to provide a sudden jump in information, showing the project exploding to a whole new scale. Compare the first video at the bottom of chapter one, with something like Act 2 End: Ascend. They are very similar feelings of suddenly "everything gets real now."

In this way "dialogue, dialogue, snarky/self aware dialogue -- eye opening video of sublime realization (followed by similar dialogue commenting on that video-enlightenment)" operates as a tandem pair, neither entirely working their full effect without the other. This is where Homestuck draws its power, not "someone is snarky like Dave."

Although it's not a coincidence the Dave voice repeats either.

I mean, the most important voice is not the Dave/JUICE voice, but John/Nine. They are, in Tarot terms "the Fool." They are the blank slate protagonist who is only just now learning everything about the world, along with us. Many critics would call this "the audience identification character", but it's not really who we see ourselves as, they are just the lens we can most easily learn about the world from.

Well, it makes sense that the Fool is first introduced to the world by someone smarter than us, but patient and benign. That is the Rose/Ten character. Only after we have the discoverer character, and the teacher character, can we have the third: the meta-aware character. That's Dave, that's JUICE, and that's our actual audience identification. We're genre-savvy, detached from the story, and prone to snarky comments. So both MSPA and 17776 have this same introductory tryptych: Fool, Teacher, Irony-master. It's a good combination for laying out a fictional universe (and explicitly stating to the audience the literary themes of this universe, as Dave/JUICE often does), and that's why people feel such similarity between the two.

Same with the pop culture references. Every work of art references pop culture these days. The key here is that 17776 and Homestuck both blatantly reference pop culture, and aspects that are not at all relevant. You get Con Air and Steely Dan coming up (but not Hillary Clinton or I lik cow or the Wire.) It's decidedly silly stuff, that tells us a lot more about the characters involved, than really makes us feel a connection to them.

Of course, both artworks explore a post-apocalyptic scenario. Homestuck deals with an Earth that has been destroyed, and what the relevant kids do beyond that, and 17776 deals with an apocalypse that ended all struggle and meaning to life, forcing people to discover new meaning. It's about what happened to our world after something major destablized everything important about it. Post-apocalypses are just commentaries on the world as it currently is, but laid bare. And with this tryptych we can get an accessible explanation: the Fool asks what's going on, the Teacher answers in the Watsonian sense, and the Ironist answers in the Doylist sense, explicitly telling us why the author is doing this here.

This works well with the middling desires of most of the audience: they are reading webfic because they want to explore something new, they want world building that is interesting and makes sense diagetically, but they want a little bit of thematic awareness that makes them knowledgable art critics.

Once we have gotten used to this trio (or rather, right before we have gotten used to them, and when we feel we are just getting the groove of the conversation,) both works then suddenly switch gears and add new voices. These are very down-to-earth voices, that assume a high degree of context to understand. (Often when switching scenes, you're coming in mid-scene to the next thing, and the first few lines of dialogue will be the reader trying to catch up to what's going on. It's mildly intellectually challenging, but more, it's constant and addictive.

Now in Homestuck, those new voices are eventually built up and worked into the diagetic plot, whereas in 17776 those voices are instead worked into the overall thematic message (often as explained by JUICE.) This split between emphasis on building plot, vs explaining its themes goes all the way through to the two very different endings (one of which was fulfilling, and the other of which... was really not.)

There are other thematic and mechanical parallels that make 17776 and Homestuck work similarly, and you can play around with them yourself.

**************

However, this obsessing about cargo cults can be a trap, like the old lady asked about what supported the turtle who carried the world on its back. "It's cargo cults all the way down."

The phrase cargo cult creates a dichotomy between that which is superficial and misleading, and that which is deep and the real meaning of the work.

But, breezy thematic analysis (like my own) can be just as cargo-cultish. You list off some words like genre-savvy, paganistic, or ironic detachment and at least some people will just nod along to how cool you sound. There's no guarantee you've found the real meaning, and haven't just found another idol to worship.

This is of course because there is no core, essential meaning to the work.
Holloway’s desire is to ask the alien-gods the meaning of life. This goal is utterly unobtainable, and the film establishes elsewhere that life has no inherent meaning (existence precedes essence) and, even if one could speak to the alien-gods, the message would be something unsatisfactory like 7*7=42 or horrific like Event Horizon’s ‘we don’t need eyes to see’.  
SMG on Prometheus
Especially in art. There is only the superficial.
One should thus invert the usual opposition within which true art is “deep” and commercial kitsch superficial: the problem with kitsch is that it is all too “profound,” manipulating deep libidinal and ideological forces, while genuine art knows how to remain at the surface, how to subtract its subject from the “deeper” context of historical reality. 
Zizek
So you're peeling back the layers of the onion. On the first layer is "different colored text, and sounds like Dave," and the next layer is "uses video as a climactic way to broaden the scope of the work." And in some ways that next layer can be more useful - in this case I think it explains affinity between these two works better, and offers a more reliable predictor of what else fans will like.

But it's still layers of the onion, and you'll never reach some inner kernel of pure meaning. You can never guarantee that you have found "what audiences want."

To address the original analogy, you could imagine some start-up entrepreneur who laughs at the cargo cults of Pacific Islands, and thinks the real idols you need to worship are the global supply chain, and synergy, and strengthening the free market. Now they might have a practical understanding of how to build their company, or they might just think that if they say enough buzzwords then investor capital will be drawn to them and they will get rich.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

The Gods of America

I've been catching up on American Gods, the prestige TV adaptation of Neil Gaiman's book, by cult favorite Bryan Fuller, of Pushing Daisies and Hannibal. It's a combination made in indie Heaven, but the show has gotten rather little traction.

Which is unfortunate, because it has two sizable virtues that set it apart from the fairly generic Gaiman novel that puts folklore scholars in a disdainful lather.

First, its imagery. Only about half of any episode is about plot and characters, but just as great a portion is scenes of some American subculture and gods associated with them. The show combines fluorescent American "kitsch" and modern day depictions of what a god would be like, extremely well. You can see it in the intro credits:



Where you have this totem pole made of religious iconography, turned into neon regalia reminiscent of a fifties diner. All of the religions are like this, with saturated imagery representing both "America as it sees itself" and "the otherworldliness of gods." It combines really well, and is worth watching for this aspect well beyond its generic plot.

Check out for example, the contrast of the Mexican-version-of-Jesus, alongside the decorated rifles used to shoot at him.



Every episode covers a different subcultural religion this way, portrayed alongside Americana like this.

This aesthetic applies to the "New Gods" as well, who represent forces like media and technology. They're done up in an extremely 80's technicolor way, with bad CGI and David Bowie ripoffs.



It's perfect for this hyperrealism which the Prequels and Prometheus approached. They're larger than life manifestations of our modern pathologies, and they're drawn brighter and larger in order to capture that.

This is frankly, the opposite of Gaiman's normal Gothic aesthetic which is dark and fairly drab (see Neverwhere, or Dream from Sandman.)

***

The other large part of American Gods is class. Gaiman is a British writer, so he writes in his novels about class the same way American liberals write about race: he openly acknowledges it a great deal, usually making his hero from the oppressed group and his villain from the oppressor group, but it's very shallow and condescending portrayal. It's decaffeinated class - Other deprived of its Otherness. This stays the same even as Gaiman writes about America, with characters like Shadow and Laura nominally being from the lower-class and mixed up with prison, but acting and talking like a New York power couple who are suitably diverse, empowered, and self-aware. There is never anything intimidating about Shadow's Otherness (either his race or his class.) He's just a guy like you and me, and not super different from Mr World.

Bryan Fuller took this nominal inclusion of class, and made it a visceral theme of the entire series. Laura really is a nihilistic trailer trash fuck up (and a zombie to boot.) Shadow is still frankly a decaffeinated black man, but Wednesday, Mad Sweeney, Salim and most of the characters from the god-of-the-week short stories actually take care to depict a different, uncomfortable, and somewhat threatening manner that reflects how we actually feel about the lower class.

It's very hard to do this story without class really. Gaiman is describing an axis of the world portrayed more comprehensively in Max Gladstone's novels with lower-class tribalists who worship their fallen, old gods with blood sacrifice, social conservatism, and communal sharing, who are in various stages of conflict with upper-class ascendant lawyers who have crushed the gods and seek to structure society and reality around absolute rules where the most ingenious can flourish and be free of prejudice. More recently, columnist Ross Douthat described it as "ethnonationalist backlash against cosmopolitan finance capitalism."

So the ascendant New Gods are best represented as these upper-class figures. Which Gaiman does with his normal "dark and mysterious aura of entitlement to control everything." Fuller updates them to the current modes of the American upper class and the dialect they use, being less about shadows and luxury, and more about moral presumption and fashionableness.

For instance, after Kid Technology has hung the protagonist Shadow from a tree, he later is forced to apologize for this:

I'm sorry. For lynching you. Hanged a dark-skinned man. Ugh. Was in very poor taste. We're in a weird, tense place racially in America, and I don't want to add to that climate of hatred.

Which is a perfectly hilarious sendup of "I just brutally tried to kill you, but let me frame it in terms of racial symbolism" which our upper class is much more comfortable talking about. (And if it is at all unclear, this is definitely depicted as an insincere, cop-out apology.) It's glib and distancing from the real pain, like a corporate diversity seminar at a company that manufactures tasers.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

MGS5: Quiet Revulsion

The most controversial figure in video game auteur Hideo Kojima's last installment in the Metal Gear Solid franchise was the scantily clad sniper "Quiet."


It's even more disturbing in the game, with motion, and rain, and dancing, and Kojima's typical "in your face" blocking.

But we need to remember that when something is disturbing in art, that's truth. We need to move towards the discomfort, and find why we are so unsettled. So let's fully investigate this character.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

RIP SMG (and Alien Covenant)

Well, megaposter SuperMechagodzilla has gotten himself permanently banned from the movie forums at SomethingAwful, It was over his general style so even if he were to get unbanned somehow, the mods have made it clear they don't want him. He's not the type to go start his own blog or something, he seemed to only emerge from that particular forum-context, so that is probably it as far as his contribution to film analysis goes. Truly it is the end of an era.

It's fitting that on the same day Freddie deBoer wrote a subcultural analysis piece that pinned SA as the origin of "ironic left" chatter that has taken over the remains of the Bernie movement
Something Awful spawned Weird Twitter, the presidential primary and elections of 2015–2016 caused Weird Twitter and Left Twitter to merge, today the default form of engagement in online left spaces is that weird, aggressive descendant of Something Awful style, and as online life drives membership increases in real-world left organizations, that style of engagement threatens to colonize those spaces as well. 
I find it all unhealthy, for many reasons. One of which is that Corbyn-style sincerity is much healthier for left discourse than nth-degree irony.
SMG was one of the most sincere left-wing commentators out there, deriding irony and "just my opinion lol" as a cowardly escape from responsibility for your opinion. So how does a brutally sincere voice remain in a sewer of irony?

Well, it was that anti-relativism they got sick of. From the explanation for the banning:
No, I banned someone for being a condescending asshole in literally every post he's made in the last year, after being told to cool it down multiple times. 
I posted something similar to this when I gave him his month probation, but I'll do it again. I don't hate SMG. I think his style of film criticism and reading is something that is unique and often adds a lot to a thread that isn't just whitenoise "this shit sucks/this owns" bullshit. But constant "my opinions are better than yours and you're an idiot for not agreeing with me" posts are probatable, and always have been. SMG's good at coming up with interesting takes, but he's also good at being a condescending prick. It takes two seconds to remove the "You're reading me wrong, pay attention or go away" from that post and there's no problem with it. That's my bottom line.
Heaven forfend in liberalism that someone think their opinion is better than others, and actually say so. On a website known for its caustic rudeness, I guess slurs are less verboten that defending what you say.

Anyway, SMG was in the middle of an exhaustive analysis of Alien: Covenant, so I'm going to put what he had written so far here. It was good stuff!


Everything below here is written by SMG, who is not me. "***" separate different posts.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

What Would Wonder Woman Do?

I usually take more time to reflect on a movie and analyze "how it worked" before I can post really thorough reviews. The text does not need immediate reaction, and that sort of pressure usually leads to meme-style analysis. (Plus it's 10 days until SMG is off his ban, so I can't even see his contribution.) And once more DCU movies have come out, hopefully I'll return to them.

But Wonder Woman's themes were so pronounced, that it's easy to at least write something the day after. Obviously, spoilers below (in fact, this really won't make much sense without seeing the movie.)


Thursday, May 18, 2017

Terrible Defenses of Good Things Are Still Terrible

Because click-bait and internet capitalism overall functions on a cycle of fashion where cool things must be called uncool to secure status, and vice versa, we're starting to see more defenses of the Prequel Trilogy. Well, a stopped clock still has a non-functioning gear mechanism and we can take it apart even when it happens to point to the right time.

Tor gives us "10 Reasons Why Attack of the Clones Is Better Than You Remember" and they are bad reasons. They are designed to convince with a liberal-humanist outlook towards movies that this movie fits that, rather than convince people that the archetypical storytelling it does really is worthwhile. Which makes them double failures, since no Episode 2 is not a good example of that sort of film making, and that film making is not superior (though there are very good examples like Blade Runner.)

1. The Unseen Adventures of Obi-Wan and Anakin

That doesn't occur in the movie, so you shouldn't be judging the movie by it. It's relying on a hoped for complexity that humanizes the characters and makes them sympathetic to us, when that does not exist and doesn't matter.

2. Count Dooku: It’s Christopher Lee.
Enough said.
While Lee was a good choice to play Count Dracula, you could at least say a lot more about him and his role. Why do you want a face synonymous with arrogant villainy to be the stand in for a dark clone of the good guys?

3. Jedi Noir
While Anakin and Padme were off…er…romancing on Naboo, Obi-Wan was following the trail of the assassin who tried to kill Padme. Like a Jedi Sam Spade, Obi-Wan operates in the shadows as he follows the trail of the assassin and uncovers a plot that’s bigger than he ever could’ve imagined. In the process, he fights Jango Fett in the rain, gets captured by Count Dooku, and come this close to being fed to the arena beasts on Geonosis. All part of the job for Obi-Wan Kenobi, P.I.

Obi-Wan is a bad detective. He ignores Anakin when it's protrayed as obvious that Anakin is correct and something much larger is wrong than just the assassination attempt. He couldn't find a missing planet unless his down-to-earth low-class alien friend told him things that aren't in the Jedi library he relies on. He walks into trap after trap, only to advance the enemy's goal of giving the Jedi an army to fight with. Nothing Obi-Wan does in Episode 2 is supposed to be good. The good part is supposed to be laughing at him.

Though that is still noir in a Chinatown sort of horrific way.

(Hint for viewers of Chinatown: you are not supposed to come away respecting Jake.)

4. The Nuances of Anakin’s Downfall

Just no.

Anakin is a whiny proto-fascist. We are not supposed to sympathize with him. We are supposed to see how badly the Jedi fucked him up and understand how someone could become a tool of dark powers. There's no nuance, it's an ethical pratfall.

5. Those Arena Monsters
Say what you will about the use of CGI in the prequels, but the three monsters who are unleashed on Anakin, Obi-Wan, and Padme in the arena on Geonosis looked terrific. And that scene is vintage Star Wars.
Okay this point is true, but doesn't explain anything beyond "they look terrific." Like how each monster is a metaphor for the sexuality of the good guy they menace, or how they are homages to film making legend Ray Harryhausen.

6. Jedi Battle

It's an anti-climactic battle that both diagetically serves as set up for a trap, and exegetically as lack of satisfaction so that the real, muscular military fight can feel much more cathartic, and for us to cheer when Anakin fires on and destroys a sheep of fleeing non-combatants.

7. Ewan McGregor

There are a dozen things that people have remembered for fifteen years from the Prequel Trilogy. Jar Jar. Chancellor "I am the Senate!" Palpatine. Mace Windu. CGI Yoda. Even Anakin is memorable. There are reasons no one ever talks about McGregor's performance.

8. Kamino.
Kamino has always stuck out as one of my favorite locations in the Star Wars galaxy. It’s also, to me, the place where the prequel aesthetic—which carried directly into the animated series, The Clone Wars (more on that soon)—really cemented itself. In The Phantom Menace, the universe doesn’t expand all that much. We return to Tatooine, and we’re never given much of a sense of Coruscant. Which leaves us only with Naboo, which was fine, but it was nothing like Kamino. Kamino exposed us to something new and, quite frankly, super weird and cool. That city on stilts in the ocean—occupied by tall, lithe aliens who specialize in making clones—kickstarted a fresher take on the look and feel of the Star Wars galaxy.
Okay yes this is true. Star Wars ultra-homogeous worlds are excellent representations of the characters' internal states.

9. Coruscant Nightlife

Eh? The point of this glitzy portrayal is that it's all a mask. Real Coruscant isn't like this - it's either halls of power, or the dingy underclass at the bottom of all those vaulting buildings. The nightlife act is full of fakery - it's a wild goose chase for a false lead, there's even a shapeshifter. Everything's not real and this is the sort of hyperreal CGI world the trilogy is mocking (which match its references to Blade Runner aesthetic.)

10. The Clone Wars

Again, you are talking about things outside the movie, hoping they add depth and complexity to things the movie specifically chose not to.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Prometheus: QUESTIONS WILL BE ANSWERED, AND YOU WILL BE LEFT HIGHLY UNSATISFIED BECAUSE WHAT YOU REALLY WANTED WAS LOVE.

Since the transformers.pdf went around recently, this reminded me that my favorite film analysis was by SMG on Ridley Scott's Prometheus. (paywalled link, but the relevant text is pasted below so don't worry.)

This is an insanely good thread about existentialism, horror, and simulation, which made me really appreciate the movie more and was largely responsible for my thoughts about horror and meaning (and of course my previous post on the movie.)

I've gone through the thread and selected the posts that present this analysis. It's very long, and you have to get used to the in-media-res of assuming SMG is responding to some argument without seeing it yourself, but it lays out the connections between film-making and how we define our own reality with clarity and wit. It's also incredibly arrogant and ungenerous to his interolocutors, but it's better to have an opinion strongly represented that lets the audience choose for itself whether and where it is correct.

Watching the film first is helpful, but not necessary.


Everything below here is written by SMG, who is not me. "***" separate different posts.